harry hits the road


Chapter 12: Tragic City RolleREd

Labor Day dawns sunny, bright, and deeply depressing at an old friend’s house in Pine Mountain, Georgia. They should call this Lack of Labor Day. America’s “official” unemployment rate is on its way to 10 percent, but respected analysts say the “real” rate is nearing 17 percent. Guess I ain’t the only extra man without a job in these here parts.

I call Harrison to tell him about my visit to Tennessee. He’s excited to learn about his family heritage if duly embarrassed to hear that I’ve ordered authentic Colonial era tricornered hats for both of us.

“Dad, we’re going to look like those goof balls in the Tea Party,” he says,

The remark blindsides me. I wonder if my 11 year old is now following populist fringe politics on CNN and C-SPAN. Turns out he’s getting his information from a far more credible source, “Saturday Night Live.”

“They want Sarah Palin to speak to the Tea Party rallies,” Harrison says. “Tina Fey was imitating her on SNL. She was real mavericky.”    

Muse is decidedly unimpressed by my genealogical finds when I call her.

“You Americans think it’s so important that you trace your ancestry 200 years,” she says. “It’s pretentious.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“In Europe, everybody can go back at least 800 or 1,000 years.”

“Well, I’m apparently descended from a saint born in 1506.”

“Five hundred years is nothing.”

Muse informs me that “everyone, practically” in Austria can trace their ancestry over a thousand years to the time of, and often to the genes of, Charlemagne, who lived from 742 to 814 A.D. The people on her mother Elisabeth’s side descended from Gauls, Goths, Allemanni, Thuringians, and ex-pats of the old Roman Empire. Ditto the ancestors of Muse’s stepfather, Maxmillian the writer. Her father, Franz, came from Norwegian stock who migrated south after the Viking Age between 790 and 1066.

“I have Viking blood,” Muse says. “This is why I am not a warm duscher.”

“John Sevier survived a mini-Ice Age,” I say.

“You are kidding me? My people are the Ice Ages. They colonize Russia, Iceland, Greenland, New Foundland.”

I try to keep my cool by changing the subject to more recent American history. I tell Muse that I toured Franklin Roosevelt’s former Summer White House and swam in the spring-fed pool where he bathed to treat his polio. The pool’s open to the public only once a year on the Sunday before Labor Day. Rather than spending the weekend doing nothing as planned, I made a video with the help of my host, Sally, a lanky redhead who used to be a radio reporter when we both lived in Texas about a hundred years back.

“Ja,” Muse says, sniffing. “I see you post it on your web site. Who is your new contra booter? ”

Translated from Germ-English, “conta booter” means contributor. I sense that it also means more trouble for me.

“She’s an old friend,” I say. “She was really great at shooting Flip videos. For a first timer, I mean. Not near as good as you, though.”

“So you have been sleeping with her for a long time?”

“Nein! I don’t sleep with her at all!”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t believe you, either,” I retort.

Muse and I hang up on each other with an exchange of F-words.

At this point, I’m tempted to go ahead and have the affair I’ve been wrongly accused of having already. The temptation passes when Sally takes me to her cousin’s house for dinner, and we all hold hands to say grace.

I’m suddenly reminded of Augustine of Hippo, the patron saint of theologians, printers, brewers, and sore-eyed folk like me. St. Augustine just so happened to be born on November 13, my birthday, in 354 A.D., and his book Confessions is regarded as the world’s first autobiography.

Prior of his conversion at age 30, Ole Augie did his share of sleeping around, keeping two concubines and siring an illegitimate son he called “God’s gift.” I don’t fault him for that. If anything I admire him for participating in life. On that score, he more or less seems to back me up with his own words. As he put it, “The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only one page.”

Far more depressing from my reprobate point of view is that Augie, in all his supposedly enlighten sainthood, concluded that only God can truly and fully love somebody because human beings carry so much psychological and sexual baggage. On the drive back to Sally’s house, I start babbling in a booze-fueled monologue, asking out loud if that’s really all there is to hope for in this world.

“How come love’s got to come from an unseen God? Can’t you receive love from another person? Can’t another person love you back? Can’t Muse and I truly and fully love each other?”

Sally simply shrugs, keeping her eyes on the road. Being from Georgia, she’s heard lots of people speaking in tongues, and she knows better than to pay it much mind unless flames start leaping out of my mouth that might set the dashboard on fire.

“Don’t ask me nothing about love and saintliness,” she says, “All I know from what you’ve told me about your itinerary is that you’re fixing to go up against some of the toughest and least forgiving women in America this time tomorrow evening.”

                                    #                                  #                                  #

Dixie Thrash, roller derby team captain

I feel a stabbing dread when I glance into the looking glass and see a black top hat perched on the bed behind me. I’m standing next to Becky Satterfield in front of a full length mirror in the guest room of her house in Birmingham, Alabama, suiting up to skate with the Tragic City Rollers, a girls roller derby team. That in itself qualifies as borderline insane. I don’t need to tempt fate any further.

“Get that damn thing off of there!” I holler, bolting toward the bed.

Becky, a restaurateur with peachy cheeks, jumps backward out of my way.

 “What damn thing?” she demands.

“This one,” I say, as I squash the top hat into the shape of a Frisbee and fling it to the floor. “Hat on a bed’s bad luck.”

Becky’s husband Tommy, a laconic stock market wizard and diehard University of Alabama Crimson Tide fan, is crouching behind one of my Flip cameras in the far corner of the room.

“Must be a Texas Longhorn superstition,” he says, chuckling.

“Okay, now, settle down,” Becky admonishes. “Let’s finish getting you dressed.”

I nod obediently, embarrassed by my little hissy fit but increasingly worried that some dark force is conspiring against me.

Ironically, I appear to be a dark force in my own right. That afternoon, Becky took me on shopping spree at various local novelty shops. We assembled an outfit comprising the top hat, a black unitard, a black undershirt, black and white striped leg warmers, a black leather vest with silver cord lacing, and silver lame elbow-length, fingerless gloves.

I fidget fretfully while Becky uses a stick of eyeliner to adorn my face with black circles, squares, and whiskers that resemble war paint. Then I scoop the top hat off the floor, and ask Tommy to film what I plan to be the opening stand up for my roller derby video.

“I’m here with my friend and hostess Becky Satterfield,” I declare, staring into the Flip camera lens. “And tonight I’m going to skate in a practice session with the Tragic City Rollers.”

“That’s right,” Becky says without prompting. “And I hope you walk away with no broken bones.”

                                    #                                  #                                  #

At half past seven that evening, Becky and I arrive at a roller rink called Skate 280. Dixie Thrash, age 30, founder of the Tragic City Rollers, is sitting on an outside bench, punching the keyboard of a laptop computer. She’s wearing purple workout pants, a black T-shirt, and a blue headscarf. I fear that I’m overdressed.

“The socks could use some work,” Dixie allows without cracking a smile.

Roller derby star Psycho B

A native of Elrod, Alabama, the state’s tornado epicenter, Dixie is the morning shift barista at a local coffee shop. She says she started recruiting players for the Tragic City Rollers in 2005 after spending a few months in Austin, Texas, one of the newly emergent capitals of the sport.

“There were about ten of us who went around plying every bathroom in every bar and rinky-dink dive in Birmingham,” she recalls. “We attracted a very eclectic demographic. We’ve got good church going girls, cops, chefs, bartenders, baristas, social workers, and business owners.”

 Dixie adds that her teammates call themselves girls as opposed to women or ladies. “My personal take on the word ‘lady’ is that it’s like ‘chick’ or ‘babe,’” she says. “I’ve never met a ‘lady’ in my life. My mom taught me that we’re people, we do all these different things. But there’s no reason to be a lady about it.”

In fact, roller derby is a made-up man’s game that traces its origins to the 1930s when sportswriter Damon Runyan and promoter Leo Seltzer transformed fast-track roller racing into contests involving physical contact and teamwork. It’s the equivalent of football without a ball played on skates rather than in cleats on a circular rink rather than on a rectangular field of grass. In other words, it’s big time barbarity on little bitty wheels.

A roller derby bout typically consists of two 30-minute periods. Each side sends out five skaters: four blockers positioned up front and one jammer positioned behind the pack. The basic goal is for the jammer on each team to score points by skating past the jammer and blockers on the opposing team. Offense and defense are played simultaneously. The blockers on each team try to help their jammer pass the blockers on the opposing team while also preventing the opposing jammer from passing them by using hockey style hip and shoulder checks.

Roller derby’s popularity peaked in the 1980s with televised bouts featuring professional skaters. It’s long since gone back to being an amateur sport, which means, once again, there’s no money-making possibilities for me. But there is some  sociological and entertainment value involved even if I may have to risk life and limb to experience it.

Over the past ten years, roller derby’s enjoyed a resurgence among mostly female skaters who emphasize athleticism and what one observer described as a “satirical punk third wave feminism” dramatized by flamboyant uniforms and provocative nommes de guerre. I ask Dixie what could possibly unite such a diverse group of girls in the common purpose of roughhousing on roller skates.

“Passion,” she says. “Why does anybody wake up in the morning? It’s something you can get obsessed about. It gets you up and gets you going. When I wake up in the morning, I want to kick some ass. My philosophy is if you ever have a problem, fix it yourself. There’s a lot of you in what you want to do You can make yourself happy after you’re about 14 years old and all the hormones are fixed. But it’s up to you to do it.

“Roller derby gives women who played sports and women who never played sports an avenue after they’re out of college,” Dixie continues. “It gives women who’ve become wives and mothers, something beyond those labels, those monikers. From eight to ten o’clock on a practice night like tonight, they’re just bad asses in their own right. Not just a bad ass mom or a bad ass cop, but their own physical body just bad assing for two hours straight. So it’s kind of empowering in that way.”

Entering the rink building, I meet a 6’3”, 300 pound male behemoth with a goatee, glasses, and a bald head. He says his name’s Ogre, thereby fulfilling yet another of the prophecies in Muse’s fairy tale.

“I’m an announcer,” Ogre informs me. “I do a little play by play, a little color commentary, talk about the players, make sure everyone in the audience knows what’s going on during the bout.”

I ask Ogre how I might fare as a rookie. “Well, you seem dressed for the part,” he says. “But do you do the hurting or do you get the hurting?”

“Guess we’ll see,” I say, shrugging.

Although players wear knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, and helmets, there’s a chance of suffering major or minor injuries at every turn and straightaway. A woman lacing up her roller skates on a nearby bench catches my eye. She’s dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt; she has a lean physique and black hair with sharp points behind each ear.  When I ask her name, her cheeks dimple.

“I’m Punk ‘N’ Disorderly,” she says.

“Oh, my God, should I be afraid of you?”

“Possibly. That’s the idea.”

I meet a trio of Punk’s teammates in quick succession. There’s the impish looking Roxie Ramjet, an information technology worker. There’s Lucky Charm, a tall, broad shouldered gal stout enough to play on a men’s college football team. And there’s Psycho B, a rawboned brunette who isn’t skating due to a series of lingering injuries. Without prompting, Psycho B shows me her torn posterior cruciate ligament. When she flexes her right calf muscle, it separates from the bone.

“Psycho B, that’s gross!” I exclaim.

“Yeah!” she replies, giggling.

Daunted but undeterred, I pick out a pair of turquoise blue size 10 roller skates at the rental counter. I haven’t been on roller skates since age 10, but I hope it’s like riding a bicycle. After lacing up my skates on one of the benches, I stand up on the surrounding carpet to get my bearings before I venture out onto the rink.

Next thing I know, my skates roll out from under me. It happens so fast I can’t t even break my fall by reaching out and grabbing a bench. I land hard on my left wrist and my left buttocks, yelping.

Scrambling to my knees, I crawl toward the curved boards separating the carpeted area from the rink. A searing pain shoots through my left wrist and the palm of my left hand. As a weekend warrior in touch football games, I’ve always been able to tell whether I’ve suffered a relatively minor scrape or a serious injury. I know immediately that this one’s serious. Becky Satterfield rushes over clutching one of the video cameras I’ve lent her so she can help document my roller derbying.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“No, I am not,” I reply, enunciating each syllable. “I am almost certain that I have just broken my wrist.”

HH3 exercising with Tragic City Rollers

I grasp the rink board with my right hand, and hoist myself upright again, muttering a stream of profanities. I’d prepared myself to get bruised, battered, and physically humiliated by the Tragic City Rollers. I hadn’t expected to get hurt before I even skated out onto the rink.

“Maybe you should just sit and watch for awhile,” Becky suggests.

“No way!” I holler.

My left wrist is throbbing and swelling, but I’ve driven too far to wimp out now. Psycho B offers me an ice pack, which she tucks inside my silver fingerless glove, and a pair of wrist guards, elbow and knee pads.

“If you fall, try to fall forward,” she says. “And try to land on your knee pads, your elbow pads, or your wrist guards.”

“Now you tell me!”

Determined to prove my mettle by playing with pain, I venture onto the rink,  dragging the rubber stoppers on the toes of my skates with every other forward roll. Dixie Thrash blows a whistle and orders her teammates to gather together for warm ups. Each girl skates to the center of the floor, drops to her knee pads, and skids to a stop. I fall to my knees, and roll over sideways in a spastic heap.

After a few routine stretches, Dixie calls for “burpees.” You’re supposed to bend over so that both hands touch the floor, then “walk” out and back on your hands. My left wrist simply won’t carry its share of the load, and I’m not nearly strong enough to do the job one-handed. I fall flat on my stomach, groaning.

 “My burpees make me urpie!”

Dixie stares down at me with undisguised disdain. Then she directs her teammates to do ten pushups, skate to and from the end of the rink, fall on their knee pads, and do ten more pushups. The pushups are impossible for me, but I try to do the skating and knee pad falls, only to collapse in a breathless heap after the third set.

Dixie orders the girls to skate around the rink in bout formation. I repair to the benches to nurse my wounded wrist and shattered ego. Ogre and another, less brawny goateed fellow named Gance Leary, who aspires to be a roller derby referee, sit down next to me to commiserate.

“Not too long ago, I was training to enter the police academy,” Gance confides. “I worked out twice a day for six months, running on a treadmill with bottles of water and backpacks on each arm to get strong enough. That was grade school compared to what I go through in roller derby practices.”

“Sorry about your wrist, but we’re glad you came,” Psycho B interjects. “Roller derby has been fighting the image that it’s fake like wrestling on TV. We try to stress that it’s all real. When we fall, we really fall.”

Dixie whistles for the first water break at half past 8. My left wrist has already swollen to the circumference of a tennis ball, and I’m chewing on a towel to keep from bawling like a baby. Becky‘s shot nearly an hour’s worth of roller derby footage. While I’m absent from most of the scenes, I reckon there’s sufficient material for a mercifully short video. I ask the girls to gather for a closing group shot at the near end of the rink.

“I tried to get through a practice session with the Tragic City Rollers, and look what happened,” I declare, hoisting my ice-packed left wrist.

 Dixie and her teammates erupt with laughter and rowdy cheers.

“But these are the greatest skaters in the world even though they’ve left me in a real world of hurt.”

I’m not kidding. My wrist is now approaching the size of a grapefruit. The microscopic little bastards who are so fond of tormenting my hungover head have a new, even more vulnerable target. They dive bomb my wrist like kamikaze pilots, strafing the skin with machine gun fire and torpedoing the bone.

Becky says it’s too late to call her family doctor to beg for prescription pain killers, and neither of us wants to spend the rest of the night in some hospital emergency room with a bunch of bleeding gunshot victims. The only viable option is to go back to her house, and numb myself with tumblers of frozen vodka.

Staggering into the guest room, I muster just enough energy to sling the jinxing black top hat onto the floor and stomp on it. Then I collapse, unable even to attempt to remove my roller derby costume. I writhe through drunken nightmares, popping up every second hour to cry out in pain.

I see a beautiful woman leaning over my bed in the glaring light of an emergency room. She’s dealing with doctors. Changing my bandages. Bringing me food and drink. I can’t tell if I’m asleep or awake, but I realize this isn’t just delirium.

Over the preceding three years, I’ve had one operation to straighten a hammer toe, two operations to remove polyps in my nose, and a two-night hospital stay to treat an infected foot. The same beautiful woman was there for me on every occasion. Wishing to God she were here with me now, I call out her name.

“Nurse Muse! Nurse Muse! Nurse Muse!”

                                    #                                  #                                  #

Next morning, Becky drives me to a local clinic called Alabama Orthopedic Surgical Specialists to have my wrist X-rayed. Dr. John Young diagnoses my injury as a non-displaced wrist fracture. He gives me a nylon splint reinforced with metal and a prescription for Vicodin. Excluding drug costs, the price of my treatment is just $250, a  testament to the potential for affordable health care if President Obama and Congress ever get their acts together.

Xray of HH3’s broken wrist

“My prognosis is I think you’ll do good,” Dr. Young says. “I just think it’ll be painful for awhile.”

“Can you please define what you mean by awhile?” I ask.

“Four to six weeks.”

Becky drives me to the drugstore, and then back to her house, where I swallow two tabs of Vicodin and call Muse.

“I hate Veek-o-deen,” Muse says. “It makes me crazy. Veek-o-deen will make you crazy, too.”

“Won’t be much of a stretch, meine liebe Nurse Muse.”

“Ja, I am Nurse Muse, and I am the one who is stretched. I go through this over and over. With you it is the toe, the nose, the nose again, then the foot. And now is the wrist. You are going through all your body parts. What do you do next to yourself? Your neck? Your  head? You want to end up like Georg?”

“Georg? What’s Georg got to do with my wrist?”

“Never mind.”

“Will you at least stop calling me a warm duscher now?”

“Okay” Muse says, sighing. “I stop.”

“Danke,” I say.

Then I pass out for the next five hours.

                                    #                                  #                                  #

That evening, I wind up having dinner at Ann’s house. A friend of another local friend, sandy haired and muscular with a rosy complexion, Ann is no roller derby girl, but she does happen to be an athlete, a water skier, a volleyball player, and an avid golfer who also happens to share my love for pot. Sympathizing with my injury, Ann offers me a joint. Two tokes later, the marijuana immediately blows away the pain, making a mockery of the Vicodin. I feel better than I have at any time during the preceding 24 hours.

I feel better still after two more tokes. I tell Ann that the ultimate goal of my road trip is to find a job on a government sanctioned medical marijuana farm in northern California. Ann says she has a friend, Nell, who owns an interest in just such a farm, and she offers to put us in touch.

I thank Ann profusely, and take two more tokes before dinner is served. My reporter’s instincts tell me that, coincidental as it may seem, her California connection is somehow going to pan out. But there’s a whole hell of a lot I don’t know. I don’t know how my wrist injury will affect the next stage of my road trip. I don’t know how to break the jinx of the black top hat on Becky Satterfield’s guest room bed. And I sure as shit don’t know anything about love or saintliness. All I know is, I’m a man who must take pause in his  “man-o-pause.”


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Dixie Thrash, roller derby team captain (HH3) 2. Roller derby star Psycho B (HH3)  3. HH3 exercising with Tragic City Rollers (Becky Satterfield) 4. X-ray of HH3’s broken wrist (Dr. John Young)